Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf is the story of a rich intellectual named Humphrey Van Weyden who, over the course of a long stay on a seal-hunting vessel called the Ghost, learns how to do the hard manual labor that working on a ship requires. Though many of the new skills Van Weyden learns are physical, perhaps even more significant is the mental change that occurs in him as he learns how to better survive in the world without the help of others. Van Weyden’s mentor for many of these lessons is Wolf Larsen, the ship’s fearsome but surprisingly well-read captain. Wolf Larsen alternates between praising Van Weyden and treating him cruelly, all supposedly with the goal of helping Van Weyden to “stand on [his] own legs” instead of the “dead man’s legs” of his wealthy father, who provided Van Weyden with an inheritance that ensured Van Weyden didn’t have to work.
While Van Weyden becomes more self-reliant over the course of the book, he also becomes more comfortable with violence, at one point personally clubbing several small seals. Crucially, however, Van Weyden never goes as far as Wolf Larsen—at the end of the book, when Van Weyden has a chance to shoot an unarmed Wolf Larsen, he chooses not to do so, even though he knows Wolf Larsen would shoot him if their roles were reversed. This demonstrates how, as Van Weyden nears the end of his journey to maturation, he has learned to step beyond the teachings of his mentor and truly stand on his own. The journey of personal growth that Van Weyden undergoes in The Sea-Wolf shows how a person needs self-reliance to survive in a cruel world. At the same time, though, the book also suggests that maturation can also involve a loss of innocence—and even an embrace of cynicism, as embodied by Wolf Larsen and his melancholy moods.
Self-Reliance and Maturation ThemeTracker
Self-Reliance and Maturation Quotes in The Sea-Wolf
I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. He kept a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and never occupied it except when he loafed through the winter months and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain.
But life and death were in that glance. I could see the vessel being swallowed up in the fog; I saw the back of the man at the wheel, and the head of the other man turning, slowly turning, as his gaze struck the water and casually lifted along it toward me. His face wore an absent expression, as of deep thought, and I became afraid that if his eyes did light upon me he would nevertheless not see me. But his eyes did light upon me, and looked squarely into mine; and he did see me, for he sprang to the wheel, thrusting the other man aside, and whirled it round and round, hand over hand, at the same time shouting orders of some sort. The vessel seemed to go off at a tangent to its former course and leapt almost instantly from view into the fog.
Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs. You’ve never had any of your own. You couldn’t walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand.
He absurdly insisted upon my addressing him as Mr. Mugridge, and his behaviour and carriage were insufferable as he showed me my duties. Besides my work in the cabin, with its four small state-rooms, I was supposed to be his assistant in the galley, and my colossal ignorance concerning such things as peeling potatoes or washing greasy pots was a source of unending and sarcastic wonder to him. He refused to take into consideration what I was, or, rather, what my life and the things I was accustomed to had been.
“I believe that life is a mess,” he answered promptly. “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?”
I have made the acquaintance of another one of the crew,—Louis he is called, a rotund and jovial-faced Nova Scotia Irishman, and a very sociable fellow, prone to talk as long as he can find a listener. In the afternoon, while the cook was below asleep and I was peeling the everlasting potatoes, Louis dropped into the galley for a “yarn.” His excuse for being aboard was that he was drunk when he signed. He assured me again and again that it was the last thing in the world he would dream of doing in a sober moment. It seems that he has been seal-hunting regularly each season for a dozen years, and is accounted one of the two or three very best boat-steerers in both fleets.
“One hundred and eighty-five dollars even,” he said aloud. “Just as I thought. The beggar came aboard without a cent.”
“And what you have won is mine, sir,” I said boldly.
He favoured me with a quizzical smile. “Hump, I have studied some grammar in my time, and I think your tenses are tangled. ‘Was mine,’ you should have said, not ’is mine.’”
“No,” Wolf Larsen answered, with an indescribable air of sadness. “And he is all the happier for leaving life alone. He is too busy living it to think about it. My mistake was in ever opening the books.
“You are afraid of him now. You are afraid of me. You cannot deny it. If I should catch you by the throat, thus,”—his hand was about my throat and my breath was shut off,—“and began to press the life out of you thus, and thus, your instinct of immortality will go glimmering, and your instinct of life, which is longing for life, will flutter up, and you will struggle to save yourself. Eh? I see the fear of death in your eyes.”
The last twenty-four hours have witnessed a carnival of brutality. From cabin to forecastle it seems to have broken out like a contagion.
Then Wolf Larsen’s other hand reached up and clutched the edge of the scuttle. The mass swung clear of the ladder, the men still clinging to their escaping foe. They began to drop off, to be brushed off against the sharp edge of the scuttle, to be knocked off by the legs which were now kicking powerfully.
She seemed to me like a being from another world. I was aware of a hungry out-reaching for her, as of a starving man for bread. But then, I had not seen a woman for a very long time. I know that I was lost in a great wonder, almost a stupor,—this, then, was a woman?—so that I forgot myself and my mate’s duties, and took no part in helping the new-comers aboard.
I looked at my watch. It was one o’clock. I had slept seven hours! And she had been steering seven hours! When I took the steering-oar I had first to unbend her cramped fingers. Her modicum of strength had been exhausted, and she was unable even to move from her position. I was compelled to let go the sheet while I helped her to the nest of blankets and chafed her hands and arms.
“Hump,” he said slowly, “you can’t do it. You are not exactly afraid. You are impotent. Your conventional morality is stronger than you.”
Giving over his attempt to determine the shadow, he stepped on deck and started forward, walking with a swiftness and confidence which surprised me. And still there was that hint of the feebleness of the blind in his walk. I knew it now for what it was.
“I am still a bit of the ferment, you see,” he wrote a little later.
“I am glad you are as small a bit as you are,” I said.
“Thank you,” he wrote. “But just think of how much smaller I shall be before I die.”
“And immortality?” Maud queried loudly in the ear.
Three times the hand essayed to write but fumbled hopelessly. The pencil fell. In vain we tried to replace it. The fingers could not close on it. Then Maud pressed and held the fingers about the pencil with her own hand and the hand wrote, in large letters, and so slowly that the minutes ticked off to each letter:
“One kiss, dear love,” I whispered. “One kiss more before they come.”
“And rescue us from ourselves,” she completed, with a most adorable smile, whimsical as I had never seen it, for it was whimsical with love.